“State of Play” is the very sort of movie that “they just don’t make anymore.” Despite its attempts to include newfangled ideas regarding new journalism and the topical subject matter, it is a refreshingly traditional star-driven thriller. As to be expected from any two-hour film adapted from a six-hour British mini-series, this is a plot-packed movie, but also one that feels surprisingly leisurely. It does not rush from plot twist to plot twist, but remembers to keep character front and center.
On the eve of congressional hearings into Point Corp, a multi-billion dollar private security firm that does business with the US for overseas operations, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is stained by scandal when his head researcher and mistress dies in an apparent accident. As Collins struggles to maintain his career, his former college roommate, Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), discovers an inexplicable connection between the young woman’s tragic death and the shooting of a junkie. That’s all you need. The film quickly becomes the most satisfying sort of puzzle. While there certainly are several “plot twists,” they are not the sort that make you question or reassess everything you’ve seen up to that point. Rather, as each layer of the story is pealed back, the plot makes more sense, not less. The characters’ actions seem more plausible and the overriding themes at play become stronger.
Russell Crowe gives a weary, but vaguely optimistic performance as an old-guard journalist who knows he is of a dying breed. Helen Mirren shines as the paper’s editor, torn between her love of old-fashioned shoe leather journalism and the fact that the newfangled blog world is a far larger moneymaker. She has a devastating moment where she almost casually explains how a major story that turns out to be false will sell more papers than a true story, since the resulting denials and recriminations become additional stories unto themselves. Ben Affleck once again proves what a fine actor he is when he’s not forced to be a movie star. Only Robin Wright Penn and Rachel McAdams are underused, though they do what they can with what they are given. The former is stuck with a token role as Affleck’s scorned wife, and her apparent romantic history with Crowe fails to pay off. McAdams fairs worse, though, as young hotshot blogger Della Frye who must represent that fact-less, gossipy, copy-every-hour new journalism that is theoretically killing the news.
That “State of Play” champions objective journalism over opinion-based online snark pieces is an obvious, though still noble, path. But blogger Della Frye never establishes an identity of her own. We never really learn what kind of blogger she is, what she likes to write about, or how she feels about the current tug-of-war that exists in the newspaper community. That corporatization of newspapers is the real issue, and blogging is merely a symptom, is barely mentioned. And the relationship between her and Crowe is almost laughably one-sided. She learns the value of honest investigative journalism and learns to “be a real reporter,” yet he learns nothing and gains no insight from her.
Still, the blogging versus reporting angle turns out to be a minor one, so its failure to really come together is at best a moderate flaw. But as a crime drama, a political thriller, and a journalistic who-dun-it-and-why, it is never less than completely compelling. The alleged conspiracy that is eventually unraveled is plausible and absolutely chilling, and I’m assuming any similarities to the terrific seventh season of “24” are coincidental. Aside from the stars, there are several fun supporting turns by the likes of Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman. Once again, Bateman takes a stock character and infuses him with humanity, sympathy, and a specific point of view (see also – “Hancock,” “Juno,” and “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”). He is quickly becoming one of the finest character actors around.
While the film is implicitly about the death of newspapers and the death of conventional journalism, it also ends up being about the death of itself. By that I mean the film ends up being an eulogy of sorts to the adult thriller, the star-driven suspense picture, and the very idea of mainstream movies for grownups. As their numbers dwindle in the wake of superhero epics, tween-driven comedies, and 3D animated features, the star-driven potboiler – once the most popular of genres – is becoming an endangered species. And by casting Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, two men who were once the biggest stars in Hollywood, the film becomes a monument to the death of the conventional movie star. As the traditional leading man is supplanted by the geekey outsider or the dweebish underdog (think Shia Labeouf or Zac Efron), the picture becomes an ode to all things old-fashioned. It mourns the death of traditional journalism, traditional movie stars, and even traditional movies. One cannot dispute that “State of Play” represents a fine example of all three relics.